Updated: Jul 8
You'll notice in Orthodox Divine Services, we often stand. Perhaps you have visited an historic Orthodox cathedral, such as the Hagia Sophia, where you've noticed a cavernous space without any chairs. In some traditions, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, there will only be a few seats available for those who are elderly, ill, have disabilities or are pregnant. Otherwise, the congregation stands for the entire service.
Standing during worship goes back to the Old Testament, where we are told during the blessing of Solomon's temple that, "the Levites and all the singers, being arrayed in white linen and having cymbals and psalteries and harps stood at the east end of the altar'' (II Chronicles 5:12) and that "all the congregation of Israel stood" (II Chronicles 6:2). Even in the New Testament, Christ says, "when you stand praying..." (Mark 11:25), indicating that prayer is not something we should be doing in a relaxed position.
It isn't just standing. Orthodox worshippers are just as active physically as they are in spirit, crossing themselves, prostrating, moving around the church to light candles or kiss icons even as the service takes place. Our services are not a performance for us to passively sit through as if we are at the cinema or watching a play. We are supposed to participate and be attentive throughout the entire service. It's very hard to do this when we're sitting down, relaxed or resting.
Saint Augustine, when discussing standing in church, says:
"Moved by fatherly love, I have advised those who have an affliction of the legs, or are burdened by other sickness, that they should sit quietly and listen attentively during lengthy readings. But now even some of our healthy daughters think that they should do this all the time.... Even worse, they engage in idle talking not listening themselves, nor allowing others to listen. Thus, I ask you noble daughters, and implore you with fatherly concern, that none of you should sit during readings or homilies, unless a profound weakness of the body forces you to do so."
You might be wondering then, 'why do Greek Orthodox Churches have pews and seats if we're supposed to stand?' It's only the Greek Orthodox Churches in the West that have adopted pews, simply because migrants wanted to fit in with Roman Catholic and Protestant churches that populated their new home. For this reason, pews gradually were introduced into our churches here.
It makes you wonder, though, is sitting during the service really to my spiritual benefit?
Imagine if Jesus Christ was standing in the front of the church, conducting the service Himself. Would you be sitting? Would you be leaning against a pillar or wall, shifting your weight from foot to foot? Would you be chatting to the person next to you? Of course not! You would be standing straight, attentive, totally focused on His every word. This is how we should be every time we are in a church service.